Herbert Hoover is a universally derided president, but libertarians seem to take a special glee in slamming him. Part of this is understandable, since the (incorrect) narrative is that laissez-faire capitalism, represented by Hoover, was at root of the stock market crash of 1929 and the non-response to the Great Depression that followed. Libertarians, quick to defend the market, are also quick to point out that Hoover was actually quite interventionist between 1929 and the end of his presidency and started programs that even Franklin D. Roosevelt’s advisors admitted were the template for some New Deal programs.
But, as this interview with Hoover scholar George Nash shows, there are good reasons for Americans in general, and libertarians in particular, to reassess Hoover, especially Hoover the ex-president. One reason is that while Hoover was certainly not the unrepentant capitalist of legend, nor was he cut from the same statist cloth as Roosevelt, even as president (as this campaign speech shows). Despite his interventions, Hoover was much more concerned about individual liberty and the decentralized traditions of American government than Roosevelt ever was.
Additionally, according to Nash, Hoover’s commitment to these principles only grew after the 1932 election, as he became not just an opponent of the New Deal, but its most prominent opponent within the Republican Party and the American right in general. Nash believes that Hoover provided principled, anti-Progressive leadership at a time when most high-profile Republicans, like Alf Landon and Wendell Wilkie, were inclined to adopt only slightly less radical versions of Roosevelt’s plans.
It is, of course, undeniable that Hoover had at one point been attracted to Progressivism, but Nash writes in Freedom Betrayed that, taken in a long view, Hoover’s political theory gradually progressed from a “Bull Moose Progressive” to a “man of the Right.” The fact that at least part of Hoover’s Progressive phase overlapped, to some degree, with his presidency makes ascertaining this later shift a bit more difficult. However, such a shift clearly happened, as it did with other figures that libertarians admire. John T. Flynn, a recognized member of the libertarian leaning Old Right and one of the most trenchant critics (along with Hoover) of Roosevelt’s foreign policy leading up to and during World War II, had once been a left-liberal who endorsed Roosevelt’s policies.
All this to say that Hoover, who lived three decades after his tenure as president ended, deserves closer consideration for his contributions to the cause of liberty on both domestic and foreign policy issues. If nothing else, the claim that he was simply a more tentative Roosevelt seems to be false.